Juvenile Justice System in India and the Mental Health of Juveniles

Introduction

Juvenile justice system (JJS) and the mental health of juveniles involved are inherently related. Children in conflict with law and children in need of care and protection are more likely to be prone to mental health and substance related problems. On the corollary, children having mental health or substance related problems are more likely to come in contact with the Juvenile justice system. Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015[1] focus on the developmental well-being of the children coming in contact with the JJS, including their psychological well-being, and focus on their social reintegration and rehabilitation.

Being the future of any society, and a vulnerable section of the same, children deserve laws that focus on their well-being and protection. India does have many child centric laws such as Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986[2], the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000[3], the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006[4], the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009[5], and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012[6]. Among these acts, the JJ Act deals with children in conflict with law and children in need of care and protection.

Studies show that at some juvenile justice contact points, as many as 70% of the youth have diagnosable mental health problems. The commoner ones include externalising disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), substance abuse disorders, or internalising disorders like anxiety disorders and mood disorders. Externalising disorders increase the chances of youth delinquency, violence and recidivism[7], while early identification and treatment result in decreased rate of delinquency and better social integration.[8]

This paper attempts to highlight the relevant sections of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, that deal with mental health aspect of the children and the potential role that mental health professionals can play, along with challenges and opportunities involved.

Factors responsible for juvenile delinquency

The intensity and severity of juvenile offences are generally determined by the social, economic and cultural conditions prevailing in the country. The causes of such behaviour, like all other crimes, find their roots in complex psychological, social and economic factors. Clinical studies have found emotional and mental maladjustments arising out of disorganised family problems to be a common cause behind such behaviour.[9] The causes for delinquent behaviour among juveniles are found at all stages of society, including society itself, social institutions, social groups and organisations and interpersonal relations.

Factors associated with youth crimes and delinquent behaviour are strikingly similar across nations. An international study shows that family disadvantage leads to educational disadvantage, which leads to underachievement, economic marginality, social education, and mental stress.[10]

A juvenile delinquent is the outcome of unwholesome environment congenial for the development of his faculties in conformity with social expectations. Such behaviour often occurs in social settings where the norms for accepted behaviour have broken down and the rules that deter people from committing socially unacceptable acts become irrelevant to certain members of the society. Thus, they response to the traumatising and destructive changes in their surrounding by rebellious behaviour and criminal activities.[11]

The social factors also play an important role in persuading a child towards delinquent behaviour. These factors include the behaviour of the people that the child interacts with during a certain age, like neglect, favoritism, bullying, or cruelty of parents, school teachers, or peers. This results in inferiority complex, fear of opening up, fear of apprehension, and shame at school, home, or among friends.[12] Delinquent behaviour can also be attributed to lack of education, or poor performance at school. The present education system and the society place undue importance in training the intellect of children rather than their emotional and mental well-being. This may result in neglect towards social expectations and association with people involved in criminal behaviour.[13] Another reason that can be attributed to delinquent behaviour is socio-economic background. Socio-economic instability is often linked to low income which may lead the young to resort to criminal behaviour. The present-day developing societies are dynamic and self-explanatory in its complexity followed by never-ending changes. The socio-economic change and the crises in those societies often uproot people from their traditional communities and alienate them as they lose access to their former social support networks.[14]

Television and media have popularised heroes who promote justice through physical elimination of wrongdoers. The impact of media and video games on the impressionable minds of young individuals and children is a popular debate. Children who watch violence tend to react aggressively to triggering situations. The media brings violence in individual’s nature in various ways. Firstly, movies that portray violence can excite young people and the aggression can be transferred to daily lives of impressionable children. Secondly, television shows daily violent acts by parents and peers, which leads children to believe that the acts are normal and part of routine lives. Thirdly, the violence on media and games are fake and surreal. They are also romanticised. Wounds bleed less and the agonising pain is rarely shown. So, the consequences of violent behaviour seem negligible. It causes children to believe violence is desirable and preferred way of establishing justice and acquiring what they desire.[15]

The importance of family and family background is an increasingly recognised tool for detecting deviant behaviour in young people. Children who receive adequate parental care and support are less likely to indulge in deviant activities compared to children neglected by their parents and families. Dysfunctional family environment like inadequate parental care and support, weak internal linkage and integration, and premature autonomy are closely related to juvenile delinquency. Children belonging to underprivileged families who face the risk of social exclusion are over presented as possible offenders. This has a negative impact on their mentality and attitude. Criminalisation of families is also a possible factor. Families involved in crime would push their younger members towards similar behaviour.

Thus, it is evident that the various possible factors leading to delinquent behaviour, in some way or the other, have an effect on the psychology of the child. Thus, emphasising the importance of the assessment and care of mental health of children in contact with the juvenile justice system.

Juvenile justice system and mental health

India enacted the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986 for the first time in 1986[16], which prohibited sentencing children in conflict with law to prison under any circumstances.[17] Later, being a signatory to United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, India ratified the treaty by passing the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, incorporating the provisions of the convention for the protection of children in conflict with law and children in need of care and protection. The Act adopts child friendly approach in the adjudication and disposition of matters, to ensure proper care, protection and treatment by catering to their development needs. Further, it mandates the ultimate rehabilitation of children by setting up various institutions for the purpose.

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Amendment Bill, 2010[18] omits the provision from the Act that ruled for “separate treatment of juveniles or children suffering from leprosy, sexually transmitted disease, hepatitis B, tuberculosis, and children with unsound minds”. It regulates the power of the competent authority of special homes to move a child from a special home to a special facility, like a mental health institution.

 Further, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015[19] defines child in need of care and protection as one “who is mentally ill or mentally or physically challenged or suffering from a terminal disease and having no support system (parents or guardians) if found so by the Juvenile Justice Board (Board) or the Child Welfare Committee (CWC).”[20] Moreover, the Act also states that juveniles should be given access to rehabilitation and reintegration services by institutions registered under this Act. It also mandates for these institutions to provide mental health services, including counselling focused on the needs of the child.[21] The Act also lays down the provision for moving a child from special homes to treatment centres for mental illness and substance abuse related issues.[22]

Mental health aspects of children involved with juvenile justice system

The mental health of children in conflict law and their delinquent behaviour are interrelated. This could be due to their shared biopsychological vulnerabilities, or the fact that one condition aggravates the other. Not addressing or avoiding these interrelated problems may lead to repetition of offence. Hence, addressing and acknowledging the mental health of such children, and other related issues, is of utmost importance. Mental health professionals can significantly contribute in this process, in the preventive, therapeutic, and rehabilitative fronts, apart from their advisory role in the juvenile justice system. The Act has taken this fact under consideration and provided that no social worker shall be appointed to the Juvenile Justice Board[23] or Child Welfare Committee[24] unless they have experience in education, or are practising professionals with a degree in child psychology, psychiatry, sociology, or law.

The Act mandates that in case of children ages between 16 to 18 years, accused of committing a heinous crime, a preliminary assessment should be ordered for their mental and physical capacity.[25] The Board shall take help of experienced psychologists, psychosocial workers, or other experts in the field. It has been found that children under the age of 14 years, coming in contact with law, are more prone to having mental health issues, as opposed to older children.[26] Since mental health professionals are frequently called upon as experts in such cases, their role becomes extremely important, especially when such cases get highlighted in the media, and the court procedure is likely to be influenced by such factors.

The Act mandates that confidentiality should be maintained while dealing with children in conflict with, or likely to be in conflict with, law, to avoid litigation.[27] This is in conformity to the latest Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, which also emphasises maintaining privacy and confidentiality of a person suffering from a mental illness.[28]

Rehabilitative and reintegrative services form the core of the JJ Act. It mandates the child care institutions to have mental health and deaddiction facilities for the children.[29] The Act also provides that as and when required, a child may also be shifted to a mental health facility or a deaddiction center, for necessary treatment. What is needed is to form a comprehensive post-discharge plan to ensure continuity of care, to avoid worsening of the psychological or behavioural problem, as the case may be.

Challenges in meeting the mental health needs

Although there are major gaps between practice and policies for juveniles who run afoul of the law, India has made a promising beginning by adopting progressive legislation, especially the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 and the community can provide this vulnerable, yet difficult population a chance at an easier present and brighter future.

The Juvenile Justice Act provides that the mental health and well-being of the children be given utmost importance, in reality, this mandate does not seem to achieve actual practice. Lack of understanding about child psychology and deviant behaviour among social workers, and staff of child care institutions are some of the limiting factors. Lack of training and knowledge on the part of these staff lead to harsh behaviour towards the children, which may lead to worsening of the problem.

There are also incidences of children from the LGBTQ+ communities and children with gender identity issues coming in contact with the juvenile justice system. There is a lack of proper training and sensitisation among the staff of the child care institutions about the problems faced by such children, as they are often prone to bullying by the senior inmates and the workers, which increases the risks of mental health problems.

Although the Juvenile Justice Act requires regular and basic mental health facilities, including specific need-based counselling sessions, many institutions involved in the system run without regular and qualified mental health professionals, or have irregular visits from professionals who are volunteers with NGOs offering supplementary services like health and recreation. A study conducted by National Commission for Protection of Child Rights reflected that children in child care homes face various mental traumas like bullying by senior inmates, sexual abuse, overcrowding, etc. Therefore, there should be regular monitoring of child care homes to keep a check on the treatment of children and the implementation of the provisions of the Act.

Prejudice and stigma are a major challenge in the reintegration and rehabilitation of such children. The society often sees these children as threatening, or possessing a bad character. This leads to marginalisation and lack of social integration, which may cause stress, inferiority complex, or other mental health related issues in the children.

Lack of awareness regarding mental health issues and the stigma around it is a hurdle for early intervention. This results in delay in seeking help till the juvenile comes in contact with the juvenile justice system. It is imperative to spread awareness about mental health and the importance of mental health care.

Conclusion and recommendations

A standardised curriculum should be developed for persons dealing with children encountering the juvenile justice system, which should include educating the personnel about child psychology, different psychological and biological needs of children in need of care and protection and children in conflict with law, as well as sensitisation and awareness about the LGBTQ+ community.

Childcare institutions should be made better equipped by appointment of mental health professionals on a regular basis. Further, regular auditing of the childcare institutions for ensuring proper functioning, availability of qualified staff and mental health professionals and conformity with the provisions of the laws in force should be done. The authority running the childcare institution should be made accountable and answerable for any lack thereof.

Counselling of the juveniles at the time of their entry at the institutions should be made a norm. The counselling should deal with the reason why they are being kept in the institutions, the possible situations that they might face during their stay at the institution, example bullying by senior inmate, and the authority that they should contact in such cases. Additionally, a simple screening mechanism for detection of mental disorders should be developed that would be easy to use by the staff at the childcare institutions with proper training, without the help of mental health professionals. This would enable the institutions to assess the mental state of the children at entry level and provide the required help.

Job and livelihood oriented vocational training should be imparted to the children, tailored to their skills and interests. Digital learning and technology driven courses should be preferred in order to make their reintegration in the society and make it easier for them to find an appropriate job upon their release.

Training and counselling sessions with prior inmates with regard to substance use problems, or other issues, should be available. Since inmates often share similar socio-economic backgrounds and experiences inside the juvenile justice system, it would be easier for the children to talk to and relate to the prior inmates and help in better dealing with the environment in the system.

Awareness about psychological and socio-cultural determinants and the relation between delinquent behaviour and mental health issues should be spread so as to reduce the stigma and prejudice against child offenders that is prevalent in the society so as to ease the process of social reintegration and rehabilitation.


BA LLB (Hons.), National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi, e-mail: shipra8997@gmail.com.

[1] <http://www.scconline.com/DocumentLink/nAUMUPN2>.

[2] <http://www.scconline.com/DocumentLink/Zs3BeR9b>

[3] <http://www.scconline.com/DocumentLink/nAUMUPN2>.

[4] <http://www.scconline.com/DocumentLink/Isn4k0z4>.

[5] <http://www.scconline.com/DocumentLink/c51TsRvC>.

[6] <http://www.scconline.com/DocumentLink/slbHee3H>.

[7] Fazel, S., Doll, H., Långström, N., Mental Disorders Among Adolescents in Juvenile Detention and Correctional Facilities: A Systematic Review and Metaregression Analysis of 25 Surveys, 47 J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry (2008).

[8] Shufelt, J.L., Cocozza, J.J., Youth with mental health disorders in the juvenile justice system: Results from a multi-state prevalence study, Delmar, NY: National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice (2006), <https://www.sprc.org/resources-programs/youth-mental-health-disorders-juvenile-justice-system-results-multi-state>.

[9] F. Ershad, Juvenile Delinquency and Slum Area: A Critical Outlook on Chicago School with Specific Reference to Iran, 38 Indian Journal of Criminology) (2003).

[10] Friday, Paul C., Juvenile Delinquency: An International Perspective, 1-3 Indian Journal of Criminology (2006).

[11] Sanyukta Singh, Juvenile Justice in India: A Critique, J54 Cr. LJ, Vol. 109 (August 2003).

[12] Mohd. Wasim Ali, Juvenile Delinquency in India: A Socio-Legal Study, SCC OnLine 23 ALJ (2015-2016) 258. <http://www.scconline.com/DocumentLink/a0w48qgk>

[13] J.P.S. Sirohi, Criminology and Penology 384 (Allahabad Law Agency 2004).

[14] F. Ershad, Juvenile Delinquency and Slum Area: A Critical Outlook on Chicago School with Specific Reference to Iran, 38 Indian Journal of Criminology) (2003).

[15] Friday, Paul C., Juvenile Delinquency: An International Perspective, 1-3 Indian Journal of Criminology (2006).

[16] <http://www.scconline.com/DocumentLink/vf1D7306>.

[17] Sagar, R., Patra, B.N., Gupta, P., Gaps Analysis in Mental Health Care Services in Child Care Institutions: A Delhi Based Study, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (2016), <https://ncpcrgovin/showfilephplid=1283>.

[18] The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Amendment Bill, 2010.  <http://www.scconline.com/DocumentLink/myCrg1l0>

[19] Ibid.

[20] S. 2 (14)(iv), the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.

[21] S. 18, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 

[22] S. 96, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 

[23] S. 4(3), the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015

[24] S. 27(4) and S. 4(3), the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015

[25] S. 15, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 

[26] James G. Scott, Childhood Mental and Development Disorders, 4 Mental, Neurological, and Substance Use Disorders: Disease Control Priorities, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK361938/>.

[27] S. 3(xi), the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 

[28] S. 23, the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 

[29] S. 53, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015

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  • […] India has also made legal provisions, like the other countries that deal specifically and particularly with the rights and protection of juvenile offenders which seeks to tackle the intricacy of juvenile delinquency. […]

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